I guess I’m stuck this week on which part of what John is saying is supposed to be good news. “With many other exhortations,” it says, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Exhortations sound suspiciously more like work than good news. If my friend calls me and says, “James, I’ve got some great news!” and I say, “that’s awesome what is it?” and he follows up with, “you need to give away half of what you own,” I’m likely going to hang up the phone. Or if my husband says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” then I’d expect, “the Messiah is coming to baptize the world in fire,” to fall into the bad news camp, followed by the good news that maybe now at least our bleak mid-winter will be accompanied by barbeque. But no, for John, the baptism by fire is the good news. And it must be good news for a whole slew of other people, too, because there’s a long line of them stretching out into the wilderness, caravans of folk who have traveled from the country and the city just to hear what good news John has got to share. So many people in fact that maybe John is worried that his message is loosing it’s indie edge, like maybe he had intended this outrageous material for a select disciplined few, the cool kids who were willing to forsake the status quo and stick it to the man, the kind of message that you probably hadn’t heard of yet, the kind of message you have to backpack through the wilderness on unmarked trails for days to find. Suddenly everyone was backpacking through the wilderness for it. If they had lattes back then these are the kind of people who would probably have lattes in their hand as they stood around waiting to be baptized by John, passing the time they had to spend in line by looking down into their phones. John looks up and says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
In what world is this the beginning of good news? Perhaps a world which seems to be ruled entirely by violent means. Perhaps a world which seems impossible to escape regardless of how clear it is that one’s participation in it is at the very heart of the problem. Perhaps these people knew how much blood they already had on their hands. Among the crowd are some soldiers who had probably roughed up a shopkeeper or two on the way out of town because they didn’t feel like waiting for their wages to come through before getting a drink. Tax collectors are out there, too, eyed with dread and suspicion by the prostitutes who had been forced just days before to give up the last of their own week’s earnings to them. And everyone who isn’t among the actively violent just seems helpless. Helpless to do anything other than lend a hand to someone’s shoulder when the stronger cut in line and the old woman gets pushed aside and the sky grows dark and the babies cry, and the only question we can think to ask is, “what can I do to help?” but we’re terrified by not knowing what the answer might be. You brood of vipers, you den of snakes, you slithering teeming mass defensive and afraid. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? In what world is this the beginning of good news? Perhaps one in which the wrath already feels like it it’s on its way. Perhaps one in which wrath would be preferable to apathy, or absence. Perhaps one in which everyone always seems to be on such a steady low boil of resentment that they just assume God must be busy with resenting, too.
“What are we supposed to do?” they ask. The question aches. It is timeless. Will calling our local representatives help? Should I post another news story? Is it enough to offset my own carbon footprint or must I account for my neighbor’s carbon footprint, too? Just tell me what I need to do. If there is some trick to stop the killing, if the refugees are waiting on something from me in order to get through, if my vote, my awareness, my attention will somehow put an end to this madness then just tell me where to send it, because I’m ready. I’m tired. I’m sick of feeling like a cog in a machine that seems bent upon its own destruction. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to burn the whole thing down after all, start from scratch, stomp the good out from it’s hiding place and sweep the rest away like so much empty packaging, more fuel for the barrel bin blaze which we can warm our hands by while the world around us crumbles in its just deserts. This is, after all, one way to get ready for a Messiah! If the Messiah comes as a military leader then he’ll need a militia armed to the teeth and ready for springing into action! So just tell us what to do. If the wrath of God is coming, how can we be ready to defend ourselves?
In reply he said to them, “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” At this point the crowd realizes that John has obviously never been to the Pacific Northwest before. “What about layering?” I want to explain. Like, what if I have five? One cold-weather rainproof coat and one for when it’s only cool; one for when I’m wearing black and the other for when I’m wearing earth-tones? John looks at me like I’m crazy. Maybe he saw the same thing Israel Bayer did this week. On Monday, the executive director of Street Roots wrote this on Facebook: “I witnessed a homeless woman during the downpour this morning so soaked to the bone that she simply sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, took off all of her clothes literally & said,’I give up. God, please take me.’ As I called for help, people walked by, some making snide comments, others w horrified looks on their faces having witnessed such human suffering. Being homeless is no way to live friends. It’s nothing short of hell for most. Political leadership matters. Housing matters.” “That’s what I’m talking about,” John says, “do something.”
What are we supposed to do? This is the question people come asking John. People come to John looking for good news in the midst of chaos and they get moral exhortations. Stop lying, stop cheating, stop stealing, stop hoarding. Stop drinking so much and stop fooling around. Be satisfied with what you have, no, scratch that, try being satisfied with half of what you have. The moderate in me wants to ask if I can just make a donation to some charity instead but I’m afraid of the answer that I’ll get. There is no arguing with John. There is only this simple, clear-cut path of preparation, this way of waiting in the dark for one who should be coming as surely as the dawn. And the worst thing about this path is that it’s the one we already know how to take. The hardest thing about this practice is that it’s the one we already know how to do. It’s not some mystery, it’s just work. The bad news is that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is probably going to require us to give up much of what we find ourselves attached to now, but the good news is you knew that already. The good news is that God is as near-by as someone who only needs half of what we have and likely has twice as much to give as anything we could think to ask for. The good news is that God does not come in wrath. She is here already, waiting in the line beside the soldiers and the hustlers and the screaming kids, with her hand on someone’s shoulder asking, “what can we do to help?”